Scientists need to win hearts and minds on climate change, says FAPESP director
March 20, 2019
By Maria Fernanda Ziegler | Agência FAPESP – Although climate science has advanced significantly in recent years in terms of both modeling and risk/impact assessment, some members of society still have doubts about the scientific knowledge accumulated on the subject. This phenomenon is observed in Brazil and other countries that lead research in this field.
To make matters worse, skepticism about science is on the rise just as warnings are being issued by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), calling for urgent action to mitigate the effects of global warming.
“Climate change is one of the clearest examples of the importance of science for society. It was scientists who discovered this phenomenon – and they did so decades ago,” said Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s Scientific Director, on opening the annual meeting of the FAPESP Research Program on Global Climate Change (RPGCC), which took place on February 20-21, 2019, at FAPESP’s headquarters in São Paulo, Brazil.
The main items on the meeting’s agenda were an assessment of the first ten years of the program, which was launched in 2008, and the discussion of new methodologies, but the meeting was also an occasion to reflect on the importance of the dissemination of science and scientific literacy education, especially in the classroom.
“We need excellence in science and also in communication with society, which suffers from the impact of climate change,” Brito Cruz said. “Climate change isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a fact proven over many years of research, measurement, testing and verification by scientists all over the world. I see a failure to win hearts and minds not just by us Brazilians, but also by American, French and British scientists.”
Between 2008 and 2018, FAPESP invested R$276 million in research on global climate change and R$151 million in studies that are part of the program.
“A third is via international collaboration, where FAPESP’s investment is matched by a sister agency in another country. That makes for increased funding,” Brito Cruz said.
Climate change is the most internationalized research area for FAPESP, according to Brito Cruz. In this area, 80% of the articles published by scientists based in São Paulo are collaborations with colleagues in other countries. Considering all areas, an average of 40% of articles published by São Paulo State are international collaborations.
“The Amazon is fundamental for the study of climate change, and FAPESP is the agency with the largest portfolio of research on this biome,” he said. “So don’t believe anyone who says there’s no Brazilian research on the Amazon.”
Decarbonizing the atmosphere
Participants attending the annual meeting of the RPGCC stressed that in addition to doing efficient science, they should show how their research findings are associated with economic and social benefits. Studies that integrate social science with topics such as urban living and health are therefore especially relevant, for example. Other areas that should be highlighted are the impact of climate change on the oceans and research on atmospheric decarbonization models and measures.
“Even if all the actions to which countries committed in the 2015 Paris Agreement are effectively implemented, the rise in global temperatures won’t be limited to 1.5 °C. It’s likely to average 3 °C or more. We’re going to need the scientists,” said, Thelma Krug, a senior researcher at Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) and IPCC Vice Chair.
This means that in addition to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, it will also be necessary to decarbonize the atmosphere.
At the meeting, variables presented for inclusion in the new improved climate models included nature’s response to climate change.
“Basically we’ve discovered that photosynthesis becomes more efficient when there’s more CO2 in the atmosphere, and the oceans’ carbon storage capacity increases. Conversely, the more CO2 is actively removed [using decarbonization technology], the less work is done by nature. The processes wind down and become inefficient,” said Marcos Heil Costa, a professor in the Agricultural Engineering Department at the Federal University of Viçosa (UFV) in Minas Gerais, Brazil.
According to Costa, these phenomena make climate modeling more complex and decarbonization even more costly.
Open data and impact on cities
Most participants spoke of the need to create an open data program for scientists.
“We extract data to produce knowledge, so at the start of a project we need to establish processes for managing and analyzing data. We have examples of good management and analysis of big data,” said Pedro Luiz Pizzigatti Corrêa, a professor in the Computer Engineering and Digital Systems Department at the University of São Paulo’s Engineering School (POLI-USP).
Closer attention should also be paid to the links between climate change and urban issues. “Scientists think about the future, but our cities are still stuck with the problems they had in the nineteenth century when urbanization took off – problems of sanitation, mobility and waste disposal,” said José Puppim de Oliveira, a researcher with Getúlio Vargas Foundation’s São Paulo Business School (EAESP-FGV).
For Oliveira, both the problems and the solutions can be found in the cities of emerging countries. “China’s per capita emissions are higher than those of the European Union, whereas China’s per capita GDP is half the EU’s. This relates to urbanization,” he said.
Shanghai and São Paulo City have the same GDP, but Shanghai emits ten times more CO2. “This shows it’s possible to improve. We don’t need rocket science. We already have the solutions, they already exist.”
Marta Arretche, Full Professor in the University of São Paulo’s Political Science Department and coordinator of the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) funded by FAPESP, warned against an overambitious agenda.
“The social sciences in Brazil need to focus more intensely on these problems,” she said. “The solutions to urban issues as they relate to climate change require a new model of the city. This implies a new lifestyle and the design and implementation of tailor-made public policies.”
Arretche suggested that climate scientists could take inspiration from public policy in other areas. “Pressing problems require pressure and persuasion,” she said.
In her presentation, she used Brazil’s Unified Health System (SUS) and its growth over the last 30 years as an example of public policy implementation. “Before 1988, the SUS only provided free healthcare to workers with formal employment contracts, leaving outside the system some 60% of the population. Historically speaking, the SUS has expanded to include over half the population of Brazil. It has millions of problems, but it’s become much more inclusive. It’s achieved this only by lobbying central government for more resources,” she said.
“Solutions to climate change require participation by government, business and citizens. It requires a Copernican revolution. This is no trivial task. It’s more like mobilizing for war.”
A global problem with impacts on individuals
Another point highlighted at the annual meeting of FAPESP’s global climate change research program (RPGCC) was the importance of studying the impact of climate change at the local and even individual levels, particularly on sensitive areas of the economy, such as agriculture, energy and health, as well as on international relations.
Among the most relevant research lines in this context are the calculation of systemic risk in key economic sectors and the development and implementation of technologies that guarantee enhanced efficiency.
“Farmers don’t get worked up about reducing emissions. They want to remain farmers, so they have to produce. What works is promoting mitigation and methods to improve efficiency,” said Giampaolo Pellegrino, coordinator of the climate change research portfolio at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA).
For Pellegrino, the most daunting challenge is not scientific but institutional. “In the case of agriculture, we already have many solutions. But how do we make them accessible and ensure that society uses them?” he said.
As a positive institutional example, Pellegrino mentioned the implementation of a plan by Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture (Plano ABC) to foster low-carbon agriculture. “The plan includes a line of credit to assist implementation of mitigation measures by farmers who want to take the low-carbon route,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of supplying scientific ammunition to the federal government and the negotiators who participate in climate conferences and international summits. “When we don’t do this, we lose money,” he said.
Higher efficiency is also an important issue in the energy sector. “All these changes are happening not because people are worried about climate change, but because the innovations are more efficient and consume less energy, which makes them attractive,” said José Goldemberg, Emeritus Professor of the University of São Paulo and ex-President of FAPESP (2016-18).
For Goldemberg, competition among industrialized countries is important to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions.
The impact on health is another example. “Analysis of the number of deaths due to temperature variation shows a close correlation with post codes. Cities must be prepared for climate change. They’re extremely vulnerable and we scientists must show people they should change their habits for their own benefit,” said Paulo Saldiva, Full Professor in the University of São Paulo’s Medical School (FM-USP) and director of the university’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA-USP).
Agência FAPESP licenses news reports under Creative Commons license CC-BY-NC-ND so that they can be republished free of charge and in a straightforward manner by other digital media or by print media. The name of the author or reporter (when applied) must be cited, as must the source (Agência FAPESP). Using the button HTML below ensures compliance with the rules described in Agência FAPESP’s Digital Content Republication Policy.